Center revitalizes Hampden Hub: From computer classes to a children's art program, the community facility offers activities to strengthen families in the neighborhood.

August 20, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

It's a classic moment in the renaissance of working-class Hampden: A woman plays Mozart on a silver flute to a group of hushed children in a former department store, converted into a center geared toward troubled families.

Hampden Family Center has been up and running on 36th Street in the heart of the North Baltimore neighborhood for a little more than a year.

It has become a hub of activity for the community, offering programs to strengthen families and educate many of its high school dropouts. In its first year, the center has offered baby-sitting classes for teens, Alcoholics Anonymous, computer software classes, immunizations and summer art sessions free to any child who walks through the door.

The center was founded by community business owners, residents, the local Kiwanis Club and the Junior League of Baltimore, which has pledged $225,000 and 20 volunteers to help run the facility.

Drawing the community

In just a year, its founders say, it is becoming a magnet for the community. More than 500 people have used its services.

"They're really pulling a lot of people in, and we're really starting to see it flourish," said Lori Southworth, president of the Junior League of Baltimore, which decided to finance the center because of the community's high teen-pregnancy and school-dropout rates.

While Hampden has changed in recent years, drawing some artists and young professionals, new restaurants and trendy craft shops, its longtime residents still suffer from the problems of poverty in a once vibrant mill village.

Using the center as a clearinghouse for community services has particularly helped the neighborhood, because many of its residents rarely venture far from home for help.

"Hampden is like an island," said Alice Ann Finnerty, president of the center's board and one of its founders.

"Only 40 percent of people in Hampden own cars. Most of the residents have lived here all their lives, and houses are passed down from generation to generation. It's a very closed community," said Finnerty, who also is president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.

'I think it's great'

"I heard about it through word of mouth. I think it's great," said Patricia Bradford, a 40-year-old widow and lifetime Hampden resident who lives a few blocks away with her daughters, Lisa and Brittany.

The girls have spent part of the summer at the center's art program -- painting, sculpting and learning about music.

"It gives the kids something to do. There's not much of anything to do around here," said their mother.

Bradford says she's worried about her neighborhood, but finds hope in the center.

"I like Hampden. But it's getting to the point with the drunks and prostitutes that it's kind of dragging it down," Bradford said.

She has time on her hands this summer, because she was laid off from her job at Sears in March. She's hoping to enroll in a nursing program soon, but in the meantime is spending her time volunteering at the center.

She stopped by the center one recent day to post notices of a community meeting proclaiming "New Life, New Hope" for Hampden.

She checked in with her daughters, who are taking the Summer Exposure to the Arts program from Anne Sledge, a local teacher and artist.

As the program was about to end for the summer, Sledge brought local flutist Jan Pompilo to perform for the children.

Sledge introduced Pompilo and her silver flute to the children, suggesting that they might all take a field trip to see the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at "a place called Oregon Ridge and sit on blankets and look up at the stars."

Pompilo took out her silver flute and played Mozart, Handel and Debussy. As fans turned overhead on the tin ceiling of the old department store, the music wafted out the back door into the humid Hampden alley.

Children's projects

The large room of the old department store was filled with hundreds of toys, all donated to the center. Tables were crammed with the children's projects: handmade clay pottery, tote bags and little painted chairs.

"We wanted to do an art program as a way of bringing families into the center," said Sledge, noting that 31 children have come to her afternoon sessions.

"Art is a vehicle for establishing a relationship with these kids so they can say what's on their minds. Yesterday a girl came up and said, 'My mom's starting to lose her hair.' She has cancer," she said.

Talented youngsters

Lisa Ghinger, the center's executive director, came up with the idea for the art program as a way to improve youngsters' self-esteem. "There's a tremendous amount of talent in these kids," she said.

"We're trying to offer alternatives to hanging out," she said.

Perhaps the highlight of the summer arts program has been the elaborate decoration of the old department store display window on 36th Street.

A large, colorful dragon stands, surrounded by papier-mache rocks, drawings of a rain forest and cutouts of hieroglyphics.

For the children, the dragon display gives them a sense of pride because it's their first public art exhibit for their Hampden neighbors to see as they stroll along 36th Street.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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